Labour members at the heart of bitter battle for party leadership

Deputy leader Tom Watson suggested Trotskyists were manipulating tens of thousands of new members

Jeremy Corbyn (left) and Owen Smith at the first Labour leadership debate. Photograph:  Ben Birchall/PA

Jeremy Corbyn (left) and Owen Smith at the first Labour leadership debate. Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA

 

The British Labour Party’s already bitter leadership contest took an more divisive turn this week when deputy leader Tom Watson suggested Trotskyists were manipulating tens of thousands of new members to turn the party into “a vehicle for revolutionary socialism”. Watson, who opposes Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, acknowledged most of the 130,000 who joined the party in the past six months are not “Trots and Bolsheviks”.

“Some of these people are deeply interested in political change, in building a more equal society, and are just on a journey in politics that they’re new to, and I don’t want them to feel that I’m labelling them because I’m not. But there are some old hands twisting young arms in this process, and I’m under no illusions about what’s going on. They are caucusing and factionalising and putting pressure where they can, and that’s how Trotsky entryists operate,” he told the Guardian.

Corbyn’s campaign accused Watson of peddling baseless conspiracy theories, adding the deputy leader should be working to unite the party in opposition to the Conservative government. For many of Corbyn’s supporters, Watson’s remarks were further evidence of the Labour leader’s adversaries’ obsession with the Trotskyist menace.

When party officials vetted new party members ahead of last year’s leadership election, the exercise was known as “Operation Ice Pick” after the instrument used to murder Leon Trotsky in 1940. And many Labour MPs see Trotskyist entryists everywhere, although the two most prominent actual Trotskyist parties, the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party, have only a few thousand members.

The latest row follows some important victories for Corbyn, who is not only on course to win the leadership contest but is tightening his grip on Labour’s decision-making apparatus. Already well ahead of his challenger, Owen Smith, Corbyn received a boost this week when the High Court reversed a ban on new members voting in the leadership election. The extent of his support among the membership was highlighted by elections to the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) which saw candidates sympathetic to him win all six available seats.

Resistance from MPs

Eighty per cent of Labour MPs want a new leader and most of the shadow cabinet resigned a few weeks ago, leaving Corbyn unable to field a full front bench. They point to polls showing Labour trailing the Conservatives by double digits as evidence that a party led by Corbyn is doomed to a third successive general election defeat. Before MPs broke up for their summer recess last month, the bars and tea rooms of Westminster were gurgling with speculation about how the parliamentary party might respond to a second Corbyn leadership victory.

Some suggested that the rebel majority of MPs could make a unilateral declaration of independence at Westminster, seizing the role of the official opposition, and all the perks and privileges that go with it. A much smaller number pondered a formal split, and the establishment of a new party, perhaps in alliance with the Liberal Democrats.

The MPs’ problem is that, with the number of parliamentary seats set to be reduced from 650 to 600, almost every constituency boundary will be redrawn, leading to new selection contests. Any Labour MP who supports an insurrection in the parliamentary party would be vulnerable to reselection.

MPs concerned with their own survival are conscious of the example of shadow home secretary Andy Burnham, the runner-up in last year’s leadership contest, who declined to join the coup against Corbyn. This week, he was selected by the membership as Labour’s candidate for the newly created post of Manchester mayor.

MPs and much of the media are bewildered by Corbyn’s enduring appeal among the membership and his ability to inspire so many to become active in politics for the first time. His success owes much to his apparent authenticity, a refreshing change of style from the professional political class which has dominated both main parties for a generation.

Patronising suggestion

Watson’s patronising suggestion that young members are the unwitting puppets of conniving old Trots reflects a broader attitude among Labour MPs which views the massive influx into the party as a threat rather than an opportunity. If they wish to regain control of their party, MPs will have to win the argument among the membership. To do that, they must first decide on the argument they wish to make.

Denis Staunton is London Editor

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